No Place Like Home

Thousands of Somalis fled when their country committed suicide a decade ago. Now the local INS office has found a way to send them back.

The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act is beginning to affect the Somali community, Essa opines. Under the measure, illegal immigrants and those convicted of felonies or crimes of "moral turpitude" (everything from drunk driving to domestic abuse and drug charges) are subject to mandatory detention and deportation. When the INS is unable to return aliens to their country of origin--Vietnam, Cuba, and the former Soviet Union, for example, do not accept criminal deportees--immigrants who have done time in U.S. prisons and have been released can then end up serving de facto life sentences. The INS can release these "detainees" on bond if it chooses, but frequently doesn't.

The 1996 law also made it easier for the INS to remove--kinder, gentler nomenclature for deportation--immigrants who, like Hassan, had not been convicted of any crime. The act stated explicitly that decisions of the immigration court were not subject to review by federal judges--in effect denying constitutional protection to illegal aliens; the U.S. Supreme Court, led by Justice Antonin Scalia, concurred. Immigrants like Abdul Hassan more than ever are at the mercy of the U.S. Department of Justice, which acts as both prosecutor and judge in their cases.

Not surprisingly, removals by the INS have increased dramatically every year since 1996--the result of a congressional mandate to deport noncitizens convicted of crimes. In 1996 eight Somalis were deported; by the first half of 2000, that number had risen to 26. Melanie Nezer, who follows INS policy for the Washington, D.C., nonprofit Immigrant and Refugee Services of America, doubts that there is any policy to target Somalis. But, she says, individual INS officers may choose to focus on immigrants whose asylum claims have been denied. "There's a balance between the U.S. wanting to deport criminals, and the obligation to protect people who face persecution. The local districts set their own enforcement priorities, though, so it's difficult to monitor what's going on at a local level.

"They may say, 'We're going to go after asylum seekers.' But there's no way to tell how those decisions are made. There's no transparency."

According to Essa, the INS's St. Paul office is the only branch in the United States sending Somalis back to Somalia, rather than to more stable countries. In fact, the last three years show a marked increase in Somali removals. Until 1997, the INS here hadn't deported any Somalis. Then, in 1999, 13 were removed, including six who had not been rendered automatically deportable by their criminal records. Already in 2000, three of the seven Somalis deported have been noncriminals. Dean Hove, deputy director of the St. Paul INS district, asserts that his office is merely enforcing the decisions of the immigration court. "We have about 160 Somalis in custody," he says. "Some are aggressive felons who are a risk to society. If we have contact with them, we remove them."

But a shifting INS policy toward Somali asylum seekers would not be limited to criminals. Because only those who arrived before 1992 are eligible to remain in the U.S. indefinitely, and because half of all asylum applications from Somalis are denied, there are potentially thousands of Somalis who could be deported. Their only crime, in many cases, is entering the United States illegally, which, because Somalia does not issue passports, is the only way for them to get here. In essence, every Somali refugee who enters the United States is a criminal until they're granted asylum. It's quite a catch-22.

"There are a number of people being held in jail," says Essa. "We're trying to explain that there is no Somalia, no government, so they can't send people back. People asking for asylum aren't criminals. But maybe they don't tell their story the right way, and the INS feels it's suspicious. Maybe the INS officer is in a bad mood and decides to deny asylum. He has death and life in his hands."

Essa also disagrees with the assertion that Somalia's political situation has calmed since the United Nations' 1993 military intervention. Though the fighting is officially over--or, at least, no longer newsworthy in the eyes of the West--there still is no government, banditry and repression remain rampant, and clan-based reprisal murders are all too common. "For a 20-year-old with family here, if he is sent back, he can be killed," he says. "The greatest country in the world is putting us into the hands of criminals."

The lives of Abdul Hassan and Michele McKenzie intersected by chance. When he was first taken into custody, the young Somali saw McKenzie's phone number at the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights posted on the jail wall. Frustrated and confused by his INS reversal, he decided to call.

When McKenzie first spoke to Hassan, she recalls, his deportation seemed a fait accompli: The INS had announced its intention to load him onto a plane by the following Saturday, and, short of an injunction from a federal court, he had run out of options. McKenzie was impressed by Hassan's poise and spotless record, though, and she set to work calling other immigration attorneys and looking for a loophole that could save her client. Three days before Hassan's scheduled removal, she found it.

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